A Trip of Contrasts: Renewable Energy or Coal Mining and Natural Gas Fracking

Yellow Springs, in southwest Ohio, is not in direct danger from shale gas extraction, aka “fracking” for natural gas; we don’t have the geology for it. It’s another story in eastern Ohio, across the Ohio River from Pennsylvania and Virginia, where there is oil, coal, and natural gas. The early strip mines left bare “high walls” on the Ohio hills. Then giant earth-moving equipment was brought in, such as the GEM (Giant Earth Mover) of Egypt, which moved whole hills aside to get the coal beneath. By then reclamation was required, but 30 or more years later the treeless reclaimed land, with rubble-strewn soil, is still in evidence. When the coal seam went too deep for stripping, south of Interstate 70, long-wall coal mining began. It’s a form of mining that takes place hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, removing square kilometers of coal at a pass, causing subsidence at the surface. Natural gas fracking came next, moving from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Ohio.

My brother, John Morgan, lives in eastern Ohio, so I have heard about shale gas developments. Last week, Eric Johnson and I took our video camera to begin documenting what is taking place around Barnesville, Ohio. It was a trip of great contrasts. We stayed in a community with people who had purchased a large tract of land 44 years ago to protect it from strip mining, and who have not sold their fracking rights for natural gas. We attended a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing in Cadiz, Ohio, concerning the 42-inch Rover pipeline that will transport natural gas from the tri-state region of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to Canada.

The next day we visited two families who have built or are building earth covered super-insulated solar homes. They are using PV panels and wind turbines for electricity. John then took us on a tour of fracking sites. We saw well pads that took up six acres of land and compressor stations used to clean the gas as it comes out of the ground and pressurize it for pipeline transport. There were also monstrous water storage tanks being filled with water from creeks for fracking use, settling ponds, and wastewater injection wells. We visited the area’s drinking water reservoir to witness the drawdown resulting from selling water from it for fracking. That evening we attended a “Concerned Barnesville Area Residents” (CBAR) meeting. The group organized when it was learned that the first of 23 unregulated Ohio shale gas-related waste facilities was being sited next to Barnesville. This was to dispose of drill cuttings, which we learned commonly contain dangerous levels of radioactivity from black shale formations. Pennsylvania landfills are rejecting these radioactive drill cuttings, so it is being sent to Ohio, along with 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s fracking flowback, which is also coming to Ohio for disposal.

After stopping the dump site, CBAR turned their attention to protecting the Barnesville reservoirs, water source for over 12,000 area residents. Two shale well pads are planned to be located close to the largest reservoir. The village is working on a water protection plan, but whether it will be able to assure the safety of the water supply is uncertain. Some in the group have turned their attention to researching ways to monitor air pollution from shale gas operations as well. It appears that, to date, Ohio is doing minimal air monitoring for possible contamination in the shale region. Eric and I interviewed a couple who had sold their fracking rights and a young woman who had not.

To continue our trip’s contrast, the next day we drove to Zanesville, Ohio where we visited Zane State College’s impressive alternative energy program and the Quasar biodigester. The Quasar facility takes animal and human waste, as well as milk and other produce that can no longer be sold, and extracts the energy (methane gas) before the waste is returned to the soil as both liquid and dry compost. Quasar uses the gas to generate electric power that heats or cools and runs the facility. There is also enough left to make into compressed natural gas (CNG) to fuel their trucks and cars. We were told that if the gas is not used in these ways, it would have to be “flared” off.

The trip showed us both positive and negative things that are happening. On one side were super-efficient buildings with greatly reduced energy demand; the use of solar hot-water heating, wind turbines, and solar PV; and capturing methane gas from waste products rather than put it into landfills. Juxtaposed to this was fracking for natural gas, the water pollution from which could end up being as devastating for this area of deep stone ravines, woodlands, and farms as mountaintop-removal coal mining is to southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Fracking pads are large and, to access the “inventory” of gas, must be laid out in a grid across the landscape; they can be as close together as 1/3- to 1/2-mile apart.

I came away from this trip troubled. On one hand I can imagine what this area might look like when the gas is gone, how polluted it might become, and how people’s lives and occupations could be disrupted, which makes me want to stop the fracking. On the other hand I am dependent on natural gas to keep me warm in winter and to cook my food. I am also aware that the drop in U.S. CO2 emissions is because we have converted some of our electric power generation to natural gas from coal. The night after our tour of fracking sites I was very troubled, I wrote in my journal, “I am the problem; I depend on natural gas for my needs.”